Dept. of Hollywood Hagiographies


In the beginning, I didn’t quite recognise this version of Mank. He looked the part. He sounded right. But I wasn’t quite sure what David Fincher was building towards. There was something about this character that felt familiar. That felt timeless even. But I’ll come back to that later.

First, however, some necessary context. Mank is such a film geek’s wet dream that it might prove inaccessible to anyone who isn’t intimately familiar with the inner workings of Hollywood and California politics in the 1930s. (There’s a B-plot in the movie which involves Upton Sinclair’s campaign for Governor of California in 1934 that has fitting parallels to the politics of last week.)


This is a movie that takes place in all of those in between spaces of the stories that you may already have heard about Herman Mankiewicz and the making of Citizen Kane. Which is why you cannot talk about Mank without talking about Citizen Kane.

Loosely based on the life of the American tycoon William Randolph Hearst, Kane was a bold act of iconoclasm, a movie that sought to demystify the psyche of every despot and demagogue. Arguably the greatest American movie ever made, the story behind Orson Welles’ magnum opus might actually be more dramatic than the movie itself. Hearst, you see, would bring to bear all of his power and influence to ensure that the movie never saw the light of day. There was also drama behind the scenes. In particular, between the boy genius Welles and his vaunted scribe, Mank.


My first encounter with Herman Mankiewicz was in an HBO movie from 1999 called RKO 281 (the title being a reference to the original production number of Citizen Kane). In it, Liev Schreiber and John Malkovich played Orson Welles and Herman Mankiewicz respectively. That movie, which was more concerned with the petulant prodigy that was Welles, provided a good historical overview regarding the making of Citizen Kane, but was unfortunately far too safe for its own good. Especially with regards to the relationship between Welles and Mank. Both men were portrayed as comradely collaborators, who were conflicted at times, but nevertheless genial towards one another. It conveniently whitewashed one of the longest standing controversies in Hollywood, the question of who actually wrote Citizen Kane.

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The biopic is fascinating because it presents us with one version of a subject, with one version of the truth, as filtered through the minds of all the people making it, of the director, the screenwriter, the cinematographer, and the composer. Both RKO 281 and Mank tell different versions of the same story. David Fincher’s take, however, is the only one with a point of view.

In this movie, the answer to the complex question of who wrote Citizen Kane is a simple, albeit controversial one. Fincher doubles down on the idea that Mank was the sole author of the work, an unfortunate genius, a drunk and a bettor, who was the victim of the ruthless Hollywood studio system and a self-centred Orson Welles. (The truth might be a little more complex.)


This movie is the very definition of a hagiography. But I think that’s the point. Fincher, working off his father’s decades old screenplay, wants to show us the world through Mank’s eyes. It’s a rather brilliant conceit that is employed in every moment of this movie. Every character, every conversation, every conflict, is reflected through one man’s perspective. We see all of it in reaction to Mank. From the way Welles gradually grows more and more in focus as the movie progresses, to Mank’s constant questioning of his wife as to why she loves him. Like him, we too are left trying to grasp the role that each and every person plays in his life.

It’s also an incredibly fitting approach to take in our self-absorbed present, where everyone has their own truth, irrespective of whether or not it’s actually true. Mank, mind you, isn’t a critique against our current condition. Instead, Fincher utilises our sense of self-entitlement as a narrative technique. It’s all very clever.

I’m not sure yet if this is David Fincher’s finest work, but I can tell you that it is his most accomplished. Everything about this movie just sings.

Gary Oldman is all but unrecognisable as Mank. This is, after all, every actor’s dream role. Playing a charming, erudite genius, who is constantly in conflict with his greater demons, means you get to swoosh and sashay while spouting witty one-liners and delivering insightful monologues. Amanda Seyfried treads that fine line between bimbo and brilliance as Marion Davies. Lily Collins is prim, and proper, and patient. And Tom Burke nails that most important aspect of Orson Welles: the tone and timbre of his voice.

I could also likely write another thousand or so words on the subtle brilliance of Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ soundtrack to this movie, but I thought I’d save you all of that gushing and just tell you that it’s pukka.


As for why this version of Mank looked, and sounded, and felt so familiar? As for why his story felt so timeless? It was only at the end of the movie that I realised what Fincher was up to. By superimposing Herman Mankiewicz onto Don Quixote, by making him tilt and windmills, by giving him an impossible quest, Fincher appeals to our tendency towards idealism and wishful thinking. No matter the odds.

Mank is, in many ways, a mirror to Citizen Kane. Charles Foster Kane had everything, Herman Mankiewicz had nothing. Both are stories about men who could have been great, but weren’t.


Mank is not an easy movie. Yes, you can appreciate every aspect of this film. The acting. The music. The majesty. But there is so much inside baseball that I can see how it could come across as being completely inaccessible. Put in the time, however, and I assure you that it is an impossibly rewarding experience.


132 minutes
Director: David Fincher
Writer: Jack Fincher
Cast: Gary Oldman, Amanda Seyfried, Lily Collins, Arliss Howard, Tom Pelphrey, Sam Troughton, Ferdinand Kingsley, Tuppence Middleton, Tom Burke, Joseph Cross, Jamie McShane, Toby Leonard Moore, Monika Grossman, and Charles Dance

Mank premieres on Netflix on December 4.

Uma has been reviewing things for most of his life: movies, television shows, books, video games, his mum's cooking, Bahir's fashion sense. He is a firm believer that the answer to most questions can be found within the cinematic canon. In fact, most of what he knows about life he learned from Ace Ventura: Pet Detective. He still hasn't forgiven Christopher Nolan for the travesties that are Interstellar and The Dark Knight Rises.

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